Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Categorizing American Notes: Dickens as New Journalist

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Categorizing American Notes: Dickens as New Journalist

Article excerpt


After his trip to America in 1842, Dickens published American Notes and received extensive critical response. Investigating the generally negative reactions and the reasons for them allows late-twentieth-century readers a glimpse into Dickens' reputation in the early 1840s, the various constraints of that reputation and reader expectations, and more abstractly the ways in which critical commentary reveals much about the cultural milieu from which it emerges. Part of the critical dissatisfaction with American Notes comes from the methods that Dickens employs that, perhaps ironically, prefigure those celebrated by twentieth-century new journalists.

"Is fiction which makes fact alive, fact too?" Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, Book 1, 1868


On July 14, 1842, three months before American Notes was published, Charles Dickens wrote a letter to H.P. Smith predicting an unfavorable critical response to his text. In discussing its introductory chapter, Dickens commented: "It may seem to prepare the reader for a much greater amount of slaughter than he will meet with; but it is honest and true. Therefore my hand does not shake" (Letters 270). This chapter of American Notes, tided "Introductory, and Necessary To Be Read," was ultimately suppressed before publication; in it, however, Dickens emphasized the anticipated critical and public hostility toward the book: "I can scarcely be supposed to be ignorant of the hazard I run in writing of America at all.... I know perfectly well that there is in America ... a numerous class of persons so tenderly and delicately constituted, that they cannot bear the truth in any form" (Forster 265). Having gone to America intending "to do justice to the country," Dickens notes that in "Coming home with a corrected and sobered judgment, I consider myself no less bound to do justice to what, according to my best means of judgment, I found to be the truth" (Forster 266).

As Dickens anticipated, American Notes generated an immense critical reaction; however, soon afterwards it fell into a period of general critical neglect. This neglect may have stemmed in part from an inability to categorize it very easily: Is it a failed travel book? a public journal? a social tract? This inability to easily categorize American Notes perhaps prevented readers from fully appreciating Dickens' style and methodology, a style and methodology that demonstrate his talents both as a journalist and as a novelist by combining his skills in reporting with his use of imagination and fantasy to engage the reader. I propose to examine nineteenth-century critical responses to American Notes, focusing particularly on how assumptions of generic conventions influenced those responses, and then to suggest that Dickens' experimentation is better understood in light of the conventions associated with new journalism.

American Notes was anticipated with a great amount of fervor. K.J. Fielding comments that

   relatively slight as the book is, probably no other work of Dickens
   was received with such expectant stirring. It was news rather than
   literature, and was to bring Dickens out into a new field; everyone
   waited to see whether he would show himself a universal genius or
   be exposed to his critics. (536)

Though Dickens was venturing into a "new Field," nineteenth-century critics apparently had very defined expectations of "Boz's" new book; one might speculate about the extent to which Dickens' failure to meet those expectations led to their dissatisfaction with the book, which resulted in the critics "exposing" him rather than exclaiming him a "universal genius." Thomas Hood, in his November 1842 review in the New Monthly Magazine, dearly articulates this sense of expectation:

   Since the voyages of Columbus in search of the New World, and of
   Raleigh in quest of El Dorado, no visit to America has exacted so
   much interest and conjecture as that of the author of Oliver Twist. … 
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